27 february 2014, sleepwalking towards the exit

This is clearly the phrase du jour on britain and europe at the moment, and was implied when angela merkel spoke today to britain's 1, 500 or so parliamentarians, though she clearly doesn't think it may happen. It may. As the uk's finance minister, and second in command, has made very clear, the ruling centre-right conservatives will go into the election on 7 may 2015 with a pretty cast-iron guarantee to hold a referendum on whether britain should stay in or leave. While the centre-left labour are so far holding the line, they are hardly enthusiastic and the pressure on them going into the election will intensify massively. A significant slice of labourites and a big and ever-larger slug of conservatives will anyway be voting openly to go. Even those, like the prime minister, who say they want to be able to vote to stay in, say they will do so only on the basis of negotiating a substantially reformed eu, details of which stubbornly refuse to emerge, though it should limit freedom of movement and give the uk some sort of additional veto rights, "if you cannot protect the collective interests of [britain], then [we] will have to choose between joining the eurozone, which the uk will not do, or leave the european union." The hope is that this threat will increase the chances of such substantial change from effectively zero. However, those "wellwishers" are going to be left either defending a "reform" package that is little more than window dressing, or crossing over to say we tried but we failed, so we're better off out. In any case, whatever politicians say, evidence points more and more to a referendum being totally unwinnable, meaning if we have one, the uk will leave. The inability to change now what will in this way become an inevitability, is exactly sleepwalking towards the exit.

10 february 2014, less than chinese pandas

At last, a decent article about the scottish independence referendum coming up later this year (15 dec 2012, scotland the knave; 8 may 2011, scotland the brave), from andrew rawnsley. He makes the point that the real risk of the result is less that it is a yes, which is highly unlikely, but rather that it is close, opening the way to holding another one in some years time, the "neverendum" situation that canada found itself in for decades as quebec tried to leave, though never did. The nationalists only need to win one. What finally did for the quebecois, he says, was lovebombing by the rest of canada, so david cameron, rather mocked for asking the english and welsh to phone a friend north of the border, may be on to something; as he may by wading in to set sights not just on a no but on a clear no. Whether a conservative (one mp in scotland, less than its panda population) and old etonian to boot shouting up from london (indeed from a monument of taxpayer money spent in the capital) will help the cause is a moot point. Like most brits and indeed, the polls suggest, most scots, I would rather the scots didn't go independent and don't think they will. I fear more a referendum legacy of more rights, devolution, freedoms and flexibilities for scotland's 4 million voters from an exceptionally centralised state, while the 3 million people of manchester, like the rest of england's great cities, find themselves at a further disadvantage, impotent between london's fierce economic dynamism and scotland's ever greater ability to box clever.

2 february 2014, of russian men

Over 25% of russian men die before reaching 55, a signal cause of russia's declining population and highlighting of how its place in the "bric" pantheon is unsustainable, based as it is increasingly entirely on its temporary oil prowess. The function of studies is often to ramp up the basis for action on what we already know to be true. The fact that russia men who down large amounts of vodka die very young falls, at least for me, into that category. I know this to be true from my own experience, having spent quite a lot of time in different bits of russia in the 1990s and been astounded by the cultural propensity and capacity of russian men (and it was men) to drink vodka. It was a norm to have half a largish tumbler with lunch and dinner, before even getting to serious evening drinking, where two or three can easily get through a bottle. During seminars, when my western counterparts might have popped outside for a smoke, many of the russians would bring out the hip flask and have a vodka break. A favourite trick in saunas (of which we had many) was to pour vodka rather than water on the heat, which vaporises and leaves the uninitiated wildly drunk. And my company, I should quickly admit, were of the bourgeois, reasonable, educated population, far from those you would expect to be the worst in this respect (I saw no zapoi). And for me personally, I should quickly admit, I managed just one day of trying to keep up before realising I would be absolutely doomed even trying, for while I was under the table, my colleagues and friends were happily going about the demanding daily tasks we were pursuing, seemingly unaffected bar a wry sense of humour and abandon being rather more pronounced in what is a wonderful aspect of russian culture. Though I have a slav heritage myself (see 15 sept 2013, been a while) this bit of the self is, I suppose, nurture not nature.

31 january 2014, up, up and away and other chestnuts

After some six years in my current role, I am moving on, although my other half is very happy that for once a change of job isn't bringing intercontinental upheaval. The jt were very interested. I am becoming a director at the manchester airports group. The group is largely owned by greater manchester's local authorities, so there is some follow-through for me, as there is too in the train of thought (or flight of fancy), brilliantly captured in aerotropolis, that sees airports increasingly as centres of global production and enterprise in their own right and so powerful engines of local economic development. Our own airport city may well be an exemplar of the approach. Having just bought stansted, a london airport, its - cliché alert, sorry - an incredibly exciting time to join a group clearly going places. For me its the right set of new challenges at the right time. My seat belt is fastened and I am ready for take off...

Attached File: jt.pdf

12 january 2014, another round needed

In the run up to every european election, the pitch gets a little higher that this time around (the quiet road to 2009) each party will select a pan-european candidate for commission president, giving the election more singularity and bite, and helping to bridge the "democratic deficit". This would build on what, despite falling turnout, is the ever more powerful european parliament (13 march 2013, not the papal elections; parliament of bores ?; 12 february 2011, strasbourg: bring the roof down). At the same time the powers that be, to date the member states, also appoint the council president, the otherwise-named foreign minister (21 november 2009, what to say of ashton and humpty rumpty) and nato's secretary-general (12 june 2011, two decades later...). Come the may elections then, expect to hear the name martin shulz, the candidate-to-be of the centre left. Although how much the uk labour party will push forward a german as the likely result of voting for them remains to be seen. The leading liberal candidates are ollie rehn (who I've met and rate) and (surely-not) guy verhofstadt. Least likely of all to push forward a unitary-candiate are the merkel-led centre-right, with the dominant view being these roles are for member states to decide. This creates the prospect of one side doing it, the another not and so it will be hard to analyse what difference it makes. Anyway, the biggest story of the elections looks already written, namely to what degree can the assorted anti-federalists of the front national, ukip, jobbik, gert wilders et al (23 september 2013, europe is not (too) right) sweep all before them, and in their wake can any clutch of new appointments have the legitimacy they need to conduct the eu's business. Probably, is the answer, but surely not without taking yet anotherstep back not forward in answering the democratic deficit questions.

31 december 2013, a janus moment

A new year and indeed new era begins shortly, and perhaps in preparation I have spent much of the last quiet days back on my family tree (8, 15 september 2013, looking up and been a while), now also taking shape on my study wall. We did have a few days out, with a delightful family visit to cambridge flanked by an afternoon in lincoln, a delicious michelin star lunch and west side story. The major events of the year will be in october, and there's already much to prepare, both for my son (which he is duly getting on with) and for me, which is what I will devote the small remainder of my holiday to, bar some new year party antics. Life feels all rather mature, and a few friends I have recently heard from for the first time in a while suggests I am not alone. Home is a warm place right now and its been a lovely time to enjoy it.

11 december 2013, 11/12/13

Apart from it being an odd date day, today must be the first one in a while that has seen hundreds of thousands of people on the street protesting in favour of the european union. Whilst on western shores the european tide seems to be ebbing ever further away from the demos, to the east it retains a powerful pull. Earlier this year, (1 july 2013, and now we're 28) croatia celebrated becoming the 28th member state of the union and in 3 weeks latvia will become the eurozone's 18th member. This will delight coin collectors, with a whole new set euro set, but leave governance-hawks still waiting for the ecb governing council's rotation scheme to finally kick in. On the streets of kiev, the cries are for a european perspective. Strengthening ukraine's link to brussels has now become the defining political issue on which the government, at an election or before, will be chosen. Catherine ashton, the eu's challenged foreign minister/high-representative, is a hero of the crowd, fresh from being a significant influence in egypt and iran, where the much-discussed "g3", with ashton representing the various eu countries, made a significant appearance. Don't abandon yet the notion it will one day be time for europe.

9 december 2013, everyone's a winner

The derivation of policy from short-term political imperative has a long and (ig)noble history, but there does seem to be a bit of an english wave at the moment, from benefits cuts achieving no savings, to free school dinners for those of a certain age, to energy bill cuts (or freezes). Proving all those training courses wrong, there will shortly be such thing as a free lunch, providing you are under 7, but not if you are 8 and your parent(s) can't afford it. In a similar vein, the strong incentive that rising fuel bills gives to people to radically reduce their energy use, through technology and culture change, has created two big problems. One is fuel poverty, for those who can't afford to heat their homes, the second large profits for big energy companies. Policies to address this might include a targeted subsidy for the former, and windfall taxes for the latter. Instead, £50 will simply be wiped off everyone's bill, paid for by all taxpayers, regardless of energy use. This seems designed, as does the opposition's rather wobbly price freeze, to make everyone a winner (including those 5-7 year olds' mondeo mums). However, an important side-effect is undermining the incentive framework behind reducing energy usage, just as it begins to bite. Harder to crack is the country's ever-rising benefits bill, but here's one left-field idea that just, might (go on) be worth consideration. Forget universal credit, think universal income. The swiss are soon to vote on giving every adult about £1,700 a month. Crazy ? By giving absolutely everyone the minimum needed to live (deemed in the uk about £5,000 a year), this would at once remove the whole need for most of a complex benefits system and bureacracy whose latest venture (and there are many) wasted £140m on a failed IT project. Given the uk's working age population, this would cost some £200bn - not a billion miles from the current benefit budget of £135bn, of which around 5% is bureaucracy. Once you're paid anyway, all the incentives are to work, at whatever level, to increase your income. OK, there are a very many unknowns and approximations to work through, but this might just be one radical policy prescription that hits the precious political expedient of making everyone a winner.

21 november 2013, a poor prescription

Some systems are so complex no-one understands and therefore questions them (credit default swaps spring to mind). Add sacred cow status and that makes the british prescription system practically untouchable. However, as was suggested to me today by someone with vastly more knowledge, the system seems patently ridiculous. Prescriptions are the chits given by doctors to patients to get medicine and are now the second highest area of UK health spending (after staff). More than a staggering 1, 000 million prescriptions were given in 2012 just in the community sector, at a cost of some £8.5bn, and that was far less than hospitals (£13.3bn). Though nominally they cost just under £8 in england, around 90% of prescriptions are free, mainly because they go to the over 60s, who are exempt along with a slug of, relatively random, ailments. In scotland, wales and northern ireland, they are free for everyone, saving what one suspects are the rather substantial costs of administering a complex and bureaucratic system. The last report into this, by derek wanless, found the system illogical, and the venerable british medical association calls for a fundamental review, describing the system as outdated and iniquitous. It is hard to disagree.

9 november 2013, of populism

Policies are not always, or even usually, popular. Most are either unknown to or not really understood by most of the population. Successful politicians can explain and justify enough of what they are doing in terms of individual actions. The underpinning intellectual framework is rarely part of the immediate rational. This may seem, and indeed is, a rather elitist point of view. It is also a truism and a reason that politics across the western world seems to be coming so unstuck, as the waves of apathy that built up (or perhaps better ebbed away) in the better times turn now into waves of anger and anti-elitism with times more challenging. Although this political disconnect is most talked about in the european context, both as the "democratic deficit" in eu politics and the rise of anti-establishment parties across the continent (26 march 2011, let's ignore the rise of the right), it is most developed in the us, where a generation of populists with no need to heed sense have risen due to institutionalised gerrymandering that ensures pandering to extremes. It is also increasingly apparent in the uk, where the main opposition, labour, seems to be developing policies designed less with efficacy and outcomes in mind and more with passing popularity tests, which is not necessarily a bad strategy for winning elections, though not necessarily a winning one either. As in so many things, britain is out of kilter with most of the continent, in that there this populism is anchored on the right, railing against a broadly statist equilibrium (which can be stretched to angela merkel and the epp), whereas here the head of steam is building from the left with the right defending the establishment ramparts. Whether populism's rise succeeds in its revolution, on either side of the channel, depends more than anything on experienced economic recovery, as it is not religion but prosperity that is now the opium of the people. If there is enough of it around, the walls will probably remain intact, and despite pretenders to the contrary, there is little real sign of a joshua around, which if you read the actual story, is probably a good thing.

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